WWI Centennial: Revolution in Russia

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 269th installment in the series.  

March 8, 1917: Revolution in Russia

After two and a half years of war, with around eight million casualties including two million dead, and mounting shortages and official incompetence undermining whatever support remained for the tsarist regime, the vast Russian Empire was tottering on the brink of revolution. Over a million deserters were at loose ends in big cities like Petrograd and Moscow, where they mixed with factory workers angry about rising food prices and stagnant wages, and a number of long-term strikes and lockouts were already underway, with around 20,000 workers for example locked out of the Putilov Iron Works.

Nature played a capricious role in these fateful weeks, as a brutally cold winter amplified the suffering but also kept people off the streets – until early March, that is, when the deep freeze suddenly broke and unseasonably warm weather brought hundreds of thousands of people out to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar, which is why the events which followed are often called the February Revolution). 

Founded in 1911 by the international socialist movement to recognize women’s labor and advocate for civil rights, especially suffrage, International Women’s Day already had strong political overtones. Against the backdrop of war however it assumed much broader significance, as female textile workers defied orders not to strike and began marching through Petrograd under the rallying cry “Bread and Peace.” They were soon joined by male and female workers from other factories in a show of solidarity, and the marches quickly snowballed into a mass strike, with over 100,000 protesters in the streets. 

This was hardly a disastrous turn of events for the regime in itself: there had been plenty of mass strikes before, and while they occasionally turned violent (due in no small part to suppression by police and Cossack units) they usually subsided after minor concessions on wages or other economic issues. However the protests on March 8 came not long after the Russian parliament, the Duma, reconvened after a month-long delay on February 27 – a coincidence that helped turn strikes into revolution.  

Infuriated by rumors – true, as it turned out – that Tsar Nicholas II had considered dissolving the Duma until new elections in December 1917, the usually fractious liberal reform parties joined forces with their socialist counterparts to unleash a withering rhetorical assault on the tsarist government. Encouraged by this high-level support, even more strikers came out on March 9, with up to 200,000 protesters in the streets. Concerned that the situation was getting out of hand the military governor of Petrograd, General Khabalov, ordered the police to set up barricades on key bridges across the Neva and disperse the protesters. Ominously however many of the Cossack units, usually ultra-loyal enforcers of the tsarist regime, seemed hesitant to brutalize unarmed civilians, and several protests turned violent, as rioters looted food stores and clashed with police.

Sensing opportunity socialist revolutionaries (including the rival Menshevik and Bolshevik factions) now began to play a more active role, organizing new actions with explicitly political aims, and March 10 saw the biggest protests of the war so far, with up to 300,000 people in the streets. Some protesters carried red banners calling for revolution, and crowds sang the “Marseillaise,” the French revolutionary anthem adopted as the rallying cry of socialist movements around the world. Even upper class folk found themselves swept up in the spreading chaos, according to an anonymous British embassy official, believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford, who wrote in his diary on March 10, 1917:

I had put on my boots and my trousers when I heard a sound which I knew, but couldn’t recall. I opened my window wide and realised it was the chatter of a machine-gun; then I saw an indescribable sight – the well-dressed Nevski crowd running for their lives down the Michail Street, and a stamped of motor-cards and sledges – to escape from the machine-guns which never stopped firing. I saw a well-dressed lady run over by an automobile, a sledge turn over and the driver thrown into the air and killed. The poorer-looking people crouched against the walls; many others, principally men, lay flat in the snow. Lots of children were trampled on, and people knocked down by the sledges or by the rush of the crowd. It all seemed so unjust. I saw red. 

However even at this late stage it might have been possible for some combination of political and economic concessions to defuse the crisis. But the tsarist regime once again displayed an unerring ability to do the exact wrong thing at the wrong time. 

Nicholas II, isolated at his military headquarters in Mogilev about 500 miles south of the capital, heard sketchy reports of mounting protests and scattered violence, but was misled about the seriousness of the situation by Interior Minister Protopopov, who reported the disorder but downplayed its true extent. Convinced it was just another economic strike, the Tsar ordered General Khabalov to disperse the protests by force and threats to conscript male workers who continued to strike.

On March 11 Petrograd was gripped by violence, as thousands of protesters gathered in Znamenskii Square and refused to disperse, prompting the commander of the Volynskii Guard Regiment to order his troops to open fire. Forty protesters were killed in the resulting chaos. Meanwhile Nicholas II also ordered the long-discussed dissolution of the Duma, whose reformist elements he (correctly) believed were encouraging the revolutionary disorder. 

At first the severe measures seemed to be working, as in previous incidents – but on the evening of March 11-12 events took an unexpected turn, as the focus of revolutionary activity suddenly shifted from the workers to the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, and civilian protests gave way to military mutiny.

Although many elements contributed to the mutiny, the main causes were plain enough: the 160,000 rank and file soldiers occupying Petrograd were living in miserable conditions, crammed together in barracks designed for a fraction of that number, with inadequate food and fuel for heat, and the threat of being sent to the front constantly hanging over their heads. When ordered by their corrupt, incompetent officers to fire on civilian protesters, some of whom might be family members or friends, they simply rebelled.  

Click to enlarge

March 12 was the turning point, as half the Petrograd garrison rose against established authority, imprisoning, beating or lynching their own officers if they resisted, and turning their guns on the hated police and Cossacks if they refused to join. Of course this only served to embolden the civilian protesters, and hundreds of thousands of striking workers joined force with the mutineers to seize control of the capital. 

It was not a bloodless revolution, but according to many accounts fighting took place amidst a weirdly celebratory mood. Professor L.-H. Grandijs, a correspondent for the French periodical L’Illustration, described the odd mix of calm and chaos along the central promenade on March 12, 1917:

At four o’clock in the afternoon, I went to the Nevsky Prospekt. I heard rifle shots everywhere. I was about to mount the stairs leading to the Anitschkov Bridge, when the crowd occupying it began to flee. Hardly had we bent our heads when a salvo burst out. The bullets whizzed over our heads, and I heard them hit the nearby houses. The crowd remained strangely calm. As soon as the fusillade was over, people came back to the Nevsky Prospekt and looked around. The first to arrive there was an eighteen-year-old girl, who was as composed as if she were attending just any kind of show. Once the first moments of fear were gone, I heard people laugh all around me.

Later, Grandijs noted that a broad cross-section of society was visible in the ranks of the revolutionaries, inevitably including some disreputable characters, who took advantage of the opportunity for some looting and petty theft:

Two men, one killed and the other wounded, were carried by on stretchers. A Red Cross automobile was loudly cheered by the crowd as it drove by. A nurse was leaning out of it, wildly waving a red handkerchief. She was cheered all along the avenue. The crowd was composed of workers, students belonging to the lower bourgeoisie, and a number of hoodlums, coming from God knows where, who were taking advantage of the disorder… At some distance, orators were addressing the crowd from the statues of the Anitschkov Bridge…

Not long afterwards the carnival-like environment was suddenly disrupted by violence, but once again the crowd showed remarkable calm and purpose, according to Grandijs:

Suddenly, rifle shots rang out again on the Liteiny Prospekt. The women began to run, and in a moment the street was deserted. Huge flames were rising from the Palace of Justice… The soldiers appearing on the Liteiny Prospekt looked tired and anxious, but also very determined, and were all armed with rifles. Then came youthful workers and students, armed with revolvers, bayonets, army rifles or hunting rifles. No one seemed to be in command, yet a certain order, stemming from a common purpose and the strength of their conviction, prevailed.

The absence of commanders raised a critical question: who was in charge now? The lack of a clear answer foreshadowed the fate of the initial “liberal” phase of the revolution. Indeed, the socialists were already planning the establishment of “soviets” or revolutionary councils to represent workers, soldiers, and other major groups in society, as a counterweight to the Duma, the only other institution with national scope and at least some semblance of democratic legitimacy. Their rivalry would effectively paralyze the country, laying the groundwork for a second revolution in November 1917 – this time, a coup by the far more radical Bolsheviks.

Paradoxically, while it led political opposition to the tsarist autocracy, the Duma’s basic legitimacy was always based on the sovereign right of the monarchy, and its moderate reformist members were unsure how or even whether they could proceed without the tsar’s approval. After deciding to ignore the tsar’s order dissolving the assembly, the Duma delayed and debated about establishing a committee to create a provisional government on March 12-13. 

Meanwhile the revolutionaries were taking matters into their own hands, according to George Lomonosov, an engineer and high-ranking officer in the military railway administration, who recalled events on March 13: 

The Committee had not yet been elected when a crowd of people brought to the Duma the newly arrested Stcheglovitoff… After Stcheglovitoff, other arrested high officials were brought in. The Committee had never given orders for any arrests. The people were catching the most hated representatives of the old regime and bringing them to the Duma.

By now everyone understood that the wave of violence could easily turn against the Duma as well, if the crowds in the street believed it was trying to block the progress of the revolution. One conservative member of the Duma, Vasily Shulgin, recalled the atmosphere of terror that prevailed as the reformists, reluctantly led by the Duma chairman Rodzianko, met in a conference room off the main chamber to establish a committee to create a provisional government:

The room barely accommodated us: the entire Duma was on hand. Rodzianko and the Elders sat behind a table… Even enemies of long standing realized that there was something equally dangerous, threatening, repulsive to them all. That something was the street, the street mob… One could feel its hot breath… That is why they were pale, their hearts constricted… Surrounded by a crowd of many thousands, on the street stalked Death. 

On March 13, 1917 the new provisional government committee led by the reformist Prince Lviv took power – or rather, gingerly received it from the revolutionary crowds. Over the next few days the politicians, terrified by the movement that brought them to power, received deputations of soldiers, civilians and police pledging their loyalty to the new government. Even members of the old regime, led by Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, publicly submitted to the authority of the provisional government.

Street fighting in Petrograd continued on March 14, 1917, but the revolutionaries clearly had the upper hand. Lomonosov recorded his impressions, once again noting the strange combination of ferocity and festivity:

In the city firing was still going on. Here and there, from the roofs, machine guns were firing. Groups of soldiers, workmen and students were storming these roofs. The first glance at the streets showed speeding trucks, full of revolutionists. There were also many broken-down and overturned automobiles. But in general the atmosphere was happy and invigorating. Notwithstanding the firing, the streets were full of people, many women and children. In some places we saw attempts to decorate the houses with red flags. The atmosphere was like that of a holiday – like Easter.

Lomonosov’s account also confirms the importance of control of communications during the Russian Revolution – especially telephones, which were manned by a full-time volunteer force of engineering students: 

That called up some of their friends and by noon, I had at my disposition about twenty energetic students of the Institute. Each of the three men on watch at the telephone had four students to run his errands and the rest of them remained at my disposal. But even this staff proved insufficient. Those on watch at the telephones were exhausted. It was necessary to appoint an assistant to each of them. 

Meanwhile Tsar Nicholas II, realizing too late the severity of the situation, was trying to return from Mogilev to his palace outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo, but his train was blocked by troops sympathetic to the revolution and diverted to Pskov, the headquarters of the Russian Army’s northern sector on the Eastern Front. Here he received discouraging messages from General Alekseev, second in command of the Army under Nicholas II, who had decided that the old regime could no longer maintain order and – fearing that further violence in Petrograd could disrupt the war effort at the front – swiftly shifted his allegiance to the new provisional government. 

The readiness of the Russian military’s officer corps, including a good number of conservative aristocrats, to embrace or at least tolerate the provisional government would prove the decisive factor in the impending demise of the Romanov Dynasty. But in the short term many commanders were confused about who represented legitimate authority, reflecting the government’s own confusion. Anton Denikin, a Russian general, recalled the muddle of these days:

The days went by. I began to receive many – both slight and important – expressions of bewilderment and questions from the units of my corps: Who represents the Supreme Power in Russia? It it the temporary Committee which created the Provisional Government, or is it the latter? I sent an inquiry, but received no answer. The Provisional Government itself, apparently, had no clear notion of the essence of its power. 

Unfortunately the situation was about to become even more chaotic, thanks to two related developments: the abolition of officers’ authority within the army, turning all decisions over to soldiers’ committees, and the growing importance of the Petrograd soviet as a rival to the Duma.

The Fall of Baghdad 

Roughly 2,500 miles to the south, the tide was turning in Mesopotamia. Following the humiliating British defeat at Kut-el-Amara in April 1916, when 10,000 Indian and British troops were captured by the Turks after a siege lasting five months, the Indian Expeditionary Force, under Frederick Stanley Maude, received major reinforcements from India and Europe, bringing it up to a strength of seven infantry divisions and one cavalry division.

Now outnumbering the neglected Ottoman Sixth Army, with six under-strength divisions under Khalil Pasha, the IEF resumed the offensive in Mesopotamia in January 1917, advancing to Khudhaira on the Tigris River by January 18 and attacking the Hai salient on January 25, which they mostly cleared of Turkish forces by February 3. Maude renewed the assault on February 9-10, pushing the Turks back to Sannaiyat and recapturing Kut, the scene of their early humiliation, by February 24.  

The Turkish retreat now turned into a rout, and at the end of February British cavalry scouts probing enemy defenses discovered that the Ottoman Sixth Army had evacuated from Al Aziziyah. After pausing to bring up supplies, Maude again returned to the offensive, with his Anglo-Indian force reaching the ruins of the ancient Seleucid capital, Ctesiphon, also abandoned by the Turks, by March 6. 

After a fierce fight on the Diyala River south of Baghdad on March 9, on March 11 the Brits occupied Baghdad, the Ottoman capital of Mesopotamia, practically without a shot, followed by Baquba on March 18 and Fallujah on the Euphrates by March 19. 

John Tennant, a British aviator in Mesopotamia, recalled the aftermath of the British advance up the Tigris, including glimpses of the mangled Ottoman Sixth Army retreating:

Flying towards Azizieh the spectacle was amazing and horrible; dead bodies and mules, abandoned guns, waggons and stores littered the road, many of the waggons had hoisted the white flag, men and animals exhausted and starving lay prone on the ground… No scene can be so terrible as a routed army in a desert country. I turned home sickened. 

Of course the advancing Anglo-Indian troops themselves faced many of the same natural foes, including epic sandstorms that lasted for days. On March 5-6, 1917, Tennant recalled: 

The storm blew throughout the next day. The road was particularly sandy, and the army marched enveloped and choked by solid clouds of sand. It was a following wind, and as it became stirred up the dust floated forward with troops and waggons… The ground was intersected by nullahs [dry flood beds] and cut up by the columns in front. Jammed in by guns and transport, it was impossible to move forward at more than five miles an hour; it was almost dark with the intensity of the driving sand, and one could see only a few yards in front when occasionally one opened one’s eyes for fleeting glances… Spread out in marching echelons, with heads muffled up as if in the Arctic regions, the army stumbled on in the gale.

On the positive side, their arrival in Baghdad, an ancient city of around 200,000, offered some rewards in the form of fresh food. Tennant described one of the most popular refreshments: “A feature that will not be forgotten by many a British Tommy that first day in Baghdad were the oranges; for neither fresh fruit nor vegetables had we tasted for many months. Generals or Privates could bury their faces in cool, fresh oranges. I can remember the delight of it now.” Another British officer, William Ewing, confirmed that oranges were a cause for celebration: “The fresh vegetables were a real luxury after the course of bully beef and biscuits; and our weary men regaled themselves with oranges that were abundant and excellent."

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Do the Right Thing

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A shot in the arm of American consciousness, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s incendiary profile of racial tension and police overreaction—bristled in the veins of moviegoers when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1989. Taking its title from a Malcolm X quote, Do the Right Thing rumbled with youthful energy, dry comic wit, boombox-blasted politics, and an operatic magic unique to New York City.

It’s a fierce polemic. It’s a snapshot of stereotyping. It’s a chill hangout movie. It was also a showcase of Lee’s directorial know-how, just when experience was shaping his raw creative talent. Crank up the AC and the FM 108 We-Love Radio. Here are 10 things you might not know about Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated joint.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT THAT HAPPENED IN 1986.

On December 19, 1986, four black men—Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, Curtis Sylvester, and Cedric Sandiford—were traveling when their car broke down. They walked three miles to the predominantly Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, where they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to New Park Pizzeria for a meal and a telephone. When they left the eatery, they were accosted by a larger group of white men, including the ones they’d encountered earlier. Sandiford and Griffith were beaten; Griffith tried to run but was chased onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car and killed. The incident was such a part of Do the Right Thing’s DNA that Lee wanted to open the film with his character, Mookie, shouting “Howard Beach!” while defacing Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

2. IT’S DIFFICULT TO FIND SHOTS THAT DON’T FEATURE THE COLOR RED.

A scene from 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

One of the most impressive feats of the movie is how powerfully you feel the heat of the summer day. Besides placing Sterno cans near the camera to keep the air wavy, color was the filmmakers' most important tool in transferring the temperature to the screen. “I did a lot of research on [color usage’s] psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range—yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers—and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian. That rule extended to costuming, set design, and props, which is why almost every scene has at least one red element in it.

3. SPIKE LEE ORIGINALLY WANTED ROBERT DE NIRO TO PLAY SAL.

Oh, what might have been. It’s a no-brainer that Lee would have wanted Robert De Niro for the role of the brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello (who scored an Oscar nomination for the film). “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film?” Lee said. “So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”

4. IT CONTAINS NODS TO A FEW CLASSIC FILMS.

Bill Nunn in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An avid cinephile and a student of film history, Lee is such a massive fan of Charles Laughton’s chest-thumper Night of the Hunter that he dropped part of it into the middle of Do the Right Thing. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries the knuckle ring version of Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter character’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos, and he explains their existence using almost the exact same monologue.

Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson also turned to classic noir The Third Man for its use of disorienting Dutch angles; you can watch as the camera angle gets more and more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot.

5. LEE TOOK THE MOVIE TO ANOTHER STUDIO TO AVOID A SAPPY ENDING.

It’s hard to imagine it, but Paramount executives dropped a bomb on Lee close to the end of pre-production, demanding an unrealistically uplifting ending. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World,’” Lee told New York Magazine. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.” Obviously, he did the right thing.

6. ROSIE PEREZ’S DANCE SEQUENCE TOOK EIGHT HOURS TO FILM.

Even the opening credits of Do the Right Thing are iconic. Rosie Perez’s frenetic, emotional dance to the bowel-shaking bass boom of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage as well as any of Shakespeare’s prologues.

“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez explained. “Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, okay. I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So, I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all 'Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!' And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'"

7. LEE HIRED THE NATION OF ISLAM’S PARAMILITARY AS SECURITY ON THE SET.

The production descended on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street in late summer 1988, building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and painting murals, but largely leaving the neighborhood in its natural state for the shoot. To ensure safety, they hired members of Fruit of Islam, then run by Louis Farrakhan, to act as on-set security. One of their first jobs was boarding up known crack houses and guarding them to deter drug abusers from returning.

8. CLOTHING REINFORCES THE RACIAL LOYALTIES.

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Carter bolstered certain characters’ attitudes by dressing them in racially-coded clothes. The white, brownstone-owner cyclist (John Savage) who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) shoes wears a Larry Bird Celtics jersey while Buggin’ Out’s sneaks are Air Jordans. Mookie also wears a Jordan jersey and a Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson’s number. Plus, while the racist Pino (John Turturro) wears all black in classic villain fashion, he wears a white undershirt while at work in the pizzeria, signaling his racial allegiance in the neighborhood in contrast to his open-minded brother Vito (Richard Edson), who wears a black undershirt.

9. IT WAS DIRECTLY AIMED AT HURTING A MAJOR NEW YORK CITY POLITICIAN.

There’s no mistaking that Do the Right Thing is an overtly political movie that spoke to complex, large-scale issues like gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality, but parts of it were also aimed at one politician in particular. Blaming Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women like Eleanor Bumpurs (one person to whom the movie is dedicated) at the hands of an overly aggressive police force, Lee included graffiti that said “DUMP KOCH” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say, “Our Vote Counts!”

“We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary [between Koch and David Dinkins],” Lee told New York Magazine. “So, throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won."

10. BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA SAW IT ON THEIR FIRST DATE.

Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve White in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle Obama said, reflecting on seeing Do the Right Thing on her first date with her future husband—and the future president. On the 25th anniversary of Lee’s film, Barack Obama recorded a video message thanking Lee for helping him impress Michelle. Other options for that first date? Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids were still in theaters, and The Karate Kid Part III came out the same weekend as Do the Right Thing.

13 Nostalgic Facts About American Graffiti

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Before he made Star Wars, then ruined Star Wars, then saved Star Wars by selling it to Disney, George Lucas made another iconic film that has served as a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released 45 years ago today, was a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical look at the American teenager circa 1962, before "the sixties" kicked in and changed everything. The film was a massive hit, earning $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released in 1978—a total of some $500 million at today's ticket prices. Let's get nostalgic for nostalgia and look in-depth at the making of American Graffiti

1. GEORGE LUCAS MADE THE MOVIE PARTIALLY OUT OF SPITE.

The young director's previous film and first feature, the futuristic sci-fi drama THX-1138, had been a disappointment both critically and commercially. Lucas' wife, Marcia—as well as friend Francis Ford Coppola—urged him to make something more relatable. "Don't be so weird," Lucas recalled Coppola telling him. "Try to do something that's human ... Everyone thinks you're a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy, make a warm and funny movie."

Marcia said, "I reminded George that I warned him [THX] hadn't involved the audience emotionally. He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck ...' So finally, George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'" He showed her!

2. IT WAS SAVED FROM BECOMING A TV MOVIE BY THE GODFATHER.

Universal Pictures gave Lucas a budget of $600,000, or about $3.5 million in 2016 dollars, to make the movie—in other words, not very much. When Coppola came onboard as a producer shortly after the release of The Godfather, Universal gave Lucas another $175,000. Later, when the film was finished and had test-screened positively, Universal inexplicably wanted to drastically re-edit it and release it as a TV movie. Lucas objected but had no clout. Coppola, on the other hand—by this time an Oscar-winner—could make studio executives listen. He convinced them to do only a little bit of trimming (the deleted scenes were reincorporated for home video release) and to release the film theatrically. 

3. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THERE IS NO ACTUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN AMERICAN GRAFFITI AND HAPPY DAYS.

Happy Days premiered five months after American Graffiti was released. It was set in the '50s, had Ron Howard playing a teen very similar to his American Graffiti character, used "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme song, and even borrowed the American Graffiti font for the credits. You'd think that Happy Days was somehow a spin-off of the movie, but you'd be wrong. It actually began as an unsold pilot in 1971 and aired in 1972 as part of the anthology series Love, American Style. (Lucas watched it at some point when he was considering casting Howard in American Graffiti.) After the movie took off, and with '50s nostalgia in high gear (Grease was burning up Broadway), ABC reconsidered the Happy Days pilot, ordered a series, and did everything they could to make it remind people of American Graffiti. It ran for 10 years and was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history. 

4. THE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE TITLE.

Universal executives didn't know what American Graffiti meant as a title (they weren't alone), and begged Lucas to change it. They furnished a list of 60 alternates, including Rock Around the Block (Coppola's suggestion) and Another Slow Night in Modesto (which was close to Lucas' original working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto). Lucas wouldn't budge.

5. LUCAS'S CO-WRITERS DIDN'T LIKE THE ENDING.

The film ends with title cards revealing what happened to the main characters (the male ones, anyway) afterward, much of which isn't happy. The co-writers Lucas hired early on to help him develop the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, found it depressing and strange and tried to talk Lucas out of it but never succeeded. (Stubbornness is a recurring theme in stories about Lucas.)

6. WOLFMAN JACK WAS A HOLDOVER FROM A PREVIOUS MOVIE IDEA LUCAS HAD.

The radio DJ with the distinctive voice was part of Lucas' teenage years in Modesto, California, and Lucas even considered making a documentary about him when he was a student at USC's film school. When American Graffiti made him a millionaire, Lucas paid the Wolfman a little extra for serving as the film's "inspiration." 

7. IN THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION, THE BLONDE WASN'T REAL.

Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spends most of the film chasing a beautiful, mysterious blonde (played by Suzanne Somers) he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird. Lucas originally intended to shoot a scene where the blonde and the car were briefly transparent, revealing to the audience that she was a figment of Curt's imagination. This was one of the things that had to go when Universal insisted on a strict, tight budget. 

8. THE PRODUCER HAD TO BECOME MACKENZIE PHILLIPS'S LEGAL GUARDIAN FOR THE SHOOT.

Mackenzie Phillips was just 12 years old when she arrived to make the film, and though she had showbiz experience (her father, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither she nor her parents realized that California law required her to have a guardian present. "They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz"—a producer on the film—"and his family said, 'We'll take her,'" Phillips said in 1999. " So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me." Phillips lived with the Kurtzes for the duration of the shoot and described it as a happy experience. 

9. THE PRODUCTION WAS KICKED OUT OF TOWN AFTER ONE DAY OF SHOOTING.

Lucas and company planned to shoot the film in San Rafael, California, as the real setting—Modesto—had changed too much since 1962. But after just one day in San Rafael, the city council gave them the boot. Not only had a member of the crew been arrested for growing marijuana, but the first night of filming and its accompanying street closures had drawn complaints from local businesses. The production moved 20 miles north to Petaluma, where things ran a bit more smoothly (at least in terms of interactions with the locals).  

10. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM SOLD 3 MILLION COPIES.

The concept of filling an entire soundtrack with nothing but preexisting popular songs (rather than an instrumental score) was still new, with Easy Rider (1969) having been the first major example. The American Graffiti double album included 41 of the 43 songs heard in the movie, arranged in the order they appear, missing only "Gee" by The Crows and "Louie Louie" by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.

11. THERE'S A REASON ELVIS PRESLEY IS CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE SOUNDTRACK.

The reason, of course, is money. To mitigate the cost of licensing so many songs, Universal offered a flat rate to all of the labels involved. Everyone went along with it except for RCA, which meant no Elvis. The kids in American Graffiti are therefore probably the only teenagers in America who could listen to the radio all night in 1962 and never hear an Elvis song. 

12. HARRISON FORD WOULD ONLY AGREE TO BE IN THE MOVIE IF HE DIDN'T HAVE TO CUT HIS HAIR.

The future Han Solo had become disenchanted with showbiz and was working as a carpenter to support his wife and two children when he got the American Graffiti audition. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to have a flattop, but since Ford didn't care much whether he made the film or not, he issued an ultimatum: He wouldn't do it if it required cutting his hair. A compromise was reached, and Bob Falfa wears a Stetson hat throughout the film. 

13. THERE WERE A WHOLE LOT OF SHENANIGANS ON THE SET.

Lucas worked hard and fast, shooting anywhere from six to 10 script pages a night (twice the norm), but there was still a lot of downtime for the large ensemble cast of young, energetic actors. Harrison Ford (who turned 30 during the shoot and was one of the oldest people there), Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins drank a lot of beer between takes and were said to have been kicked out of the Holiday Inn for things like urinating in the ice machines and climbing on the hotel's rooftop sign. Someone set fire to Lucas' hotel room. Le Mat threw Dreyfuss into the swimming pool one night, gashing his forehead. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the hundreds of local gearheads who were paid $25 each to lend their classic cars to the production and who hung around every night, gawking at the actors and drag-racing on the back streets. 

Additional sources:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock

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